Christmas is Not Your Birthday: Giving Up on Perfect
Luke 1:30-31, 34
Rev. Sandy Johnson
December 4, 2016
Last week we began our Advent series, Christmas is Not your Birthday, by encouraging one another to expect a miracle. We talked first about the miracle of Jesus birth, then the miracle of our church blessing a family in Baton Rouge in February when we send a mission team to help rebuild a home that was damaged in the flooding last August. The third miracle we discussed was the opportunity that is before us to lease the Smith Building in the heart of town. We call it a miracle because it “a visible interruption of the laws of nature, understood only by divine intervention and often accompanied by a miracle worker.” Remember that from last week? The opportunity that is presented to us comes to us as a divine intervention.
I wanted to share with you what has happened this week so that everyone is kept informed of what is going on. A small task force met, a group of our leaders, and we recommended to the council that we proceed with a proposal to the City and negotiate a lease of the building. We are also hiring an engineering firm to do a thorough inspection that will result in a property condition assessment. This will give us the necessary information about the condition of the building that we will need to make an informed decision about whether we can afford to take on a building this size and age. Pat Benke and I will be meeting with City Manager, Dave Frasier on Monday morning to discuss our proposal and give the City an opportunity to respond. I ask that you all continue to lift up in prayer, this miracle in the making and ask for God’s will to be done. I trust that IF this is where God wants us, the details will fall into place. Amen? Amen!
So moving on from last week’s miracle message, this morning we turn to the scripture that is known most commonly as the “Annunciation.” That moment in young Mary’s life when an angel appeared before her and gave her outrageous news. She was going to become pregnant by supernatural means and give birth to the Messiah. Scandalous to say the least! Certainly not what anyone expected, she was not from the right family, not from the right town, and there was no way you could convince her or Joseph how this was going to come to be.
Unmet expectations remind me of the movie Christmas Vacation? Do you remember that movie? The Christmas show starring Chevy Chase and Beverley D’Angelo? It’s a parody about false expectations that we build up for ourselves around the Christmas season. I think we can all identify with one of the characters, whether it’s Clark Griswold and his need for the most amazing light display on the block, to his wife, Ellen whose need for a perfect turkey and trimmings led to some hilarious antics. The whole movie is based each family member’s expectations – many that went unmet – until they final realize that the true meaning of Christmas is not the Christmas bonus turned swimming pool deposit, that never came, by the way; but the time spent with family, that’s what is truly important. Sharing God’s love for one another and remembering the Birth of Jesus Christ.
But our “consumer-focused marketing and Victorian Christmas traditions have replaced the biblical meaning of “God with us.” In our attempts to create the magical Christmas experience we run ourselves into the ground emotionally, physically, financially, and relationally. Then, after weeks of pressure and preparation, all for the purpose of creating one perfect day in the midst of an imperfect year, someone’s upset because they didn’t get the present they wanted, a toy is already broken, Grandpa drank too much and Dad called Grandma the B-word!” Ah, the joys of family gatherings!
Christmas is not intended to be a sanitized nativity. It is not perfect, and it is not without drama. To expect the perfect Christmas is to set ourselves up for failure. Life is messy, the night Christ was born was messy. If you have ever attended the birth of a child, you know it’s messy. This idea that the stable was quiet, peaceful enough so that you could hear the cattle “lowing,” that’s ridiculous. There was a lot of activity and it was not necessarily a silent night. Let’s back up to today’s scripture.
God sent the angel Gabriel to a town in the Galilee called Nazareth. Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph and although engaged they had not begun living together as husband and wife. So this angel came to her and must have scared her nearly to death, because as soon as he had greeted her, he told her to “not be afraid.” I can only imagine she was terrified and she was exactly afraid! Here we have a “virgin,” which could indicate a “pubescent girl as well as someone who had not yet had intercourse. Luke is describing this God miracle in the context of an unplanned teenage pregnancy with all of the emotional grief that would entail. How emotionally prepared would a twelve- to fifteen – year-old be for this life experience? How theologically astute would she be to understand the messianic overtures of the Angel’s announcement: “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God,” Gabriel said, “will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:30-33).”
It is easy to approach the birth of Christ thinking it was so sanitary and sweet, calm and bright, right? Because we know the end of the story. We know how it ends and we have remade the story to fit our perfect Christmas visions. We must give up on this idea of perfection. There is no perfect person, no perfect event, no perfect decoration, no perfect anything. We are imperfect people who are loved by a God who loves us in spite of our imperfections. We are not able to earn God’s favor, there is no amount of being naughty or nice that will guarantee us a relationship with Christ. Just as the angel told Mary that she was highly favored, so are we, all of us here in this room. We are highly favored because we are God’s beloved children. Period!
This favor we enjoy is not without the challenges of life. It does not keep us from dealing with the pains of separation or divorce, the heartbreak of a child’s addiction or critical illness. Being favored means that in spite of the job loss, the foreclosed home or the death of a loved one, we will be surrounded by God’s love and favor. Our relationship with God does not follow a “predictable cause-and-effect pattern that always results in blessings for the obedient,” and nothing for those disobedient? Even when we do everything right, things happen that rock us to our very core. That is where we will meet God in a way we have never experienced before. That is where God picks us up and where the most fulfilling relationship with God begins. In the midst of the chaos, the mess and the drama, there is Christ, lying in a manger. Immanuel. God with us.
If we want to somehow think that as Christians we will have a neat, tidy, predictable path in life, think again? Christ’s life was anything but perfect. After he was born, King Herod sought out and killed all male babies under the age of two because he was so jealous of Jesus. Thankfully Jesus had escaped with his parents to Egypt and survived. And later we read that the Apostle Paul suffered beatings, shipwrecks and imprisonment all in the name of Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:12 says that “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Nice! Right?!
God chose Mary and God chooses us to be used in miraculous ways. We aren’t perfect, and we must stop thinking that somehow a perfect God will only use perfect people. There was only one of those, you know, perfect people; you know what they did to him (Crucified him!). We are hot messes for the most part and in spite of all of that, God continues to love us and surround us with opportunities for us to be in service to others. Some of us serve despite fear, anxiety, and self-doubt. Some of us may not feel God leading them, but long to know what that is like. Even Mother Theresa dealt with doubts. Much of her adult love she felt God’s absence but it gave her hope. “She spoke of the “darkness of faith,” referring to the almost four-decade period of her ministry during which she felt an absence of God’s presence.”
John Wesley also described a time in his life where he felt separated from God, no matter how much he desired a closer relationship. Finally, one night at church in Aldersgate that he felt, physically felt the presence of the Holy Spirit as a warming in his soul. Even without perfect relationships, without a firm knowledge of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, these two ministry icons did the work that God called them to do, not because maybe they felt it, but because they knew that was God’s purpose for them. They were imperfect people, following a perfect God.
It was never God’s intention that we would be left alone in this life to fend for ourselves. We read in Luke chapter 1 that before the angel departed, he told Mary to seek out her cousin Elizabeth. There she would find a mentor and confidant to prepare her for what lay ahead. In the same way, “God shows up and speaks to us through others who have experienced similar struggles and come out on the other side. That means your experiences of pain and, eventually, hope can also become the seed for God’s miracle in someone else’s life.”
“Life doesn’t always make sense; life gets messy even for the faithful. But God uses our painful experiences to become the seed of hope for someone else’s miracle. Why did God choose Mary to be the mother of Jesus? Because God knew that even when life didn’t make sense, she would choose to continue to serve God. “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to be as you have said” (Luke 1:38).
“After all, life isn’t about you and me. We miss life when we use God to get what we desire instead of allowing ourselves to be used by God for God’s desires. When we default to our own self-centered expectations, we take a faith detour on our life journey.”
“So when Christmas comes around during an imperfect season of life, and you just don’t feel like celebrating, remember: it’s not your birthday; it’s Jesus’ birthday, and by celebrating Christmas, we are celebrating someone else who suffered, too.
“Life is not about staying safe and living comfortably. The call to follow Jesus is a call to give your life to him, to join God’s mission in healing the souls of the world. We were never promised a reward in this life. The real rewards are found in the joy and peace that we experience through serving others in Christ’s spirit. This is why we can pray with Mary, “I am your servant, Lord. Regardless of what comes my way, let it be done to me according to your will, even when the angels disappear.”
“And then in the midst of the unexpected, the messy, and the devastating, you can still fully expect God to show up. No matter what you are struggling to overcome, God promises to show up. This is truly what Christmas is about: In the midst of all of our messes – poverty, genocide, environmental disasters, wars, terrorism, religious hate and bigotry, racism, divorce, cancer and yes, even death – God never disappoints because God always shows up!”
Let us pray: Gracious Lord Jesus, we are so thankful that you are always available to us, we only have to ask. Help us to keep our expectations in line with you, reminding us not to seek perfection in our holiday plans, but to seek you in all that we do, reminding ourselves that it is YOUR birthday, not ours. Amen.
 This series is inspired by the book by the same name by Rev. Mike Slaughter. Abingdon Press, Nashville; 2011
 Slaughter, Mike. Christmas is Not Your Birthday. Abingdon Press, Nashville. 2011, page 5
Ibid, Page 20
 Ibid, Page 23
 Ibid, page 31
 Ibid, page 32
 Ibid, page 35-36
 Ibid, page 36